About the Author
Opinion Archives
E-mail Scott
Scott's Links

Internet secrecy, revisited

By Scott Tibbs, September 9, 2009

"Cursed be he that smiteth his neighbour secretly. And all the people shall say, Amen." - Deuteronomy 27:24

Herald-Times digital editor J.J. Perry announced that the newly redesigned HeraldTimesOnline.com will launch on Thursday, with the goal of providing easier navigation and focusing on what has become the most popular area of the site: the comments HTO subscribers can leave on articles. The biggest change is that HTO subscribers will be asked to choose a primary and a secondary username. One of the problems with the site is that one person can quickly become a chorus, using multiple handles to support arguments presented by his/her/its other personalities.

Obviously, I would prefer that users be required to post using their real names, first and last. Eliminating multiple handles will at least confine the worst trolls to only two usernames. While it is technically possible that some may purchase more than one subscription to increase available usernames, it is unlikely that anyone other than the most dedicated will do that. The multiple-handle "game" is one of the worst troll tactics, as the troll creates multiple identities to cover his/her/its tracks. Some are more skilled at hiding their writing style than others. Limiting subscribers to two usernames will improve the quality of the discussions on HTO, and will increase the level of accountability for posts.

The best way to encourage accountability, of course, is to have a real name attached to posts made in a comment section or discussion forum. I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to hide one's identity online, the primary one being fear of retribution for controversial speech. I have experienced that personally. I recognize that anonymous speech can be valuable, in that it can be used to expand the arena of ideas and introduce perspectives that may not be considered or facts that may not be known. There are many examples of this.

When we look at Internet discourse realistically, it becomes clear that the vast majority of the time anonymity is not used to expand the arena of ideas but as cover that cowards hide behind to strike from the shadows. Anonymity provides the "courage" to spread malicious personal gossip and launch vicious personal attacks that the nameless poster would never dare say if he/she/it could be held accountable for his/her/its words in a public forum. Much of Internet discourse has become an open sewer because no one is held accountable for what he/she/it says. One of the worst things about the internet is that the impersonal nature of online communication, combined with anonymity and the instantaneous nature of the discussion, often leads people to say things they would never consider saying without the protection of a computer screen.

Of course, there are those who feel they "need" to remain anonymous. For those people, I would ask a simple question: would you be comfortable with your anonymous Internet postings being published as a letter to the editor in your local newspaper, or the newspaper of the nearest large city? Would you be comfortable with your grandmother reading what you have written? Would you say the same thing in a face-to-face conversation? If the answer to all of those questions is "no" then you are probably anonymous for the wrong reasons. For Christians who fear retaliation for standing on Biblical principles, I would encourage them to pray and meditate over whether their faith is weak. We should also remember the promise by our Lord that "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you." (John 15:20)

As a statement against internet secrecy, I have required that anyone who comments on this blog do so using his/her real name, first and last. I've considered whether I've gone too far with this stand, and whether it is necessary given that I closely moderate the comments and won't tolerate the filth that is too often allowed elsewhere. The reason I've decided to take this stand, however, is to emphasize the principle that those who comment in a public forum should be willing to be held accountable by name for what they post. In a sea of nameless and faceless commenters, this is a place where you have to take off your mask and be held accountable for what you say.